George Washington Papers

To George Washington from General William Howe, 21 February 1778

From General William Howe

Philadelphia 21st Feby 1778.


Although my Letter of the 5th Instant has in great measure anticipated the Answer requisite to your’s of the 20th and 30th of January, I shall make no Apology for troubling you with a few observations, in consequence of the papers you referred to me, which I hope will preclude any farther declamatory Complaints on your part, and well founded Remonstrances on mine, upon the Subject of the Treatment of Prisoners.

No Report has been lately transmitted to me concerning the Situation of the Prisoners at New York; but I conclude, that if any Officers there, have been more strictly confined than others, the Severity must have proceeded from some particular Irregularities in their Conduct when more at Liberty. Being also unacquainted with the Mode adopted at that Place, of receiving Flags of Truce by Water, it is equally out of my Power at present to explain the Delay complained of on the Arrival of your Provision Sloops; but I conceive it to be not contrary to Custom in such Cases to hold the people of Vessels so arriving, under a certain Degree of Restraint until they are ordered to return. I am likewise a Stranger to the Rules that may have been found necessary to establish concerning the Sales of Provisions at New York. I shall write however by the first Opportunity, to Sir Henry Clinton, who commands in that District, and whose Regulations in these Points have, I am confident, been framed with the utmost Propriety. Exclusive of this persuasion I cannot help observing, that Mr Boudinots Representation of Circumstances within my immediate Knowledge has been such, as should prevent my giving much Credit to the Report he has made of those at a greater Distance from Explanation.

It is asserted, from the Evidences procured by that Gentleman, that your Officers, Prisoners with us, have not had any Allowance for their Subsistence, although it is notorious that all the Officers who have been boarded in the Country, were for a considerable Time allowed Two Dollars each per Week. If that Allowance is discontinued, the Hardship must be placed to the Accompt of those who should have supplied Cash for the Expence, or at least have pledged themselves for the Payment.

With Regard to the Conversation said to have passed between Mr Boudinot, and Mr Ferguson my Commissary, upon the Subject of Cloathing, I can only assure you that it has been very differently related to me by the latter, whose Veracity I have no Reason to suspect. But I have repeatedly given you full Information of the Quantity and Quality of Provisions issued to the Prisoners, as well as of my Indulgence to them in the Article of Clothing; and therefore I do not think it necessary to trouble you with farther Assurances on these Subjects: Nor will you expect I should seriously contravert the Absurdities that have been officially reported as Facts, relative to the insulting, starving, stripping and forcing Prisoners to inlist.

The Complaints of the ill Treatment of the Officers, Prisoners in Philadelphia, are equally without Foundation. Substantial Reasons, independant of several early Instances of Misconduct, rendered it highly inexpedient to grant the Liberty of this Town to your Officers in general. It will not be denied that I offered them every Indulgence that could with Propriety be admitted until an Exchange should take place, or a more extensive Parole could be granted, provided the principal Officers would be responsible that the inferior Class should confine themselves within the Limits prescribed, and refrain from any illicit Correspondence. As they did not think proper to accept this Offer, there remained no Alternative with Respect to any Degree of Liberty they might otherwise have had.1

In consequence of the various Representations that had been made of the State of the Prisoners, I formerly proposed that you should send a Deputy Commissary to visit them. The Object was, that you should obtain a faithful Account of their Condition and Treatment. Mr Clymer, one of your Deputy Commissaries, came hither accordingly and was admitted. Of his Report, no Notice has been taken,2 whilst full Credit is affected to be given to Evidence collected by Mr Boudinot from Prisoners who had made their Escape, and from Inhabitants whose Principles had induced them to depart from the Towns in our Possession.

If there are amongst you who pretend to suppose me capable of encreasing the Miseries of the unfortunate, or of inflicting lawless Punishments on the Guilty, they will not scruple to circulate a Suspicion at least, that whatever I advance is only with a view to palliate a Conduct which I cannot justify to Humanity. In order to invalidate the ungenerous Impressions which may be thus attempted to be made upon the Minds of the credulous, and not in any Hope of giving Satisfaction to the willing Authors of such Calumny, I transmit to you the Declaration of Mr Thomas Franklin your Agent for Prisoners in Philadelphia, which completely refutes all those Aspersions that have been so studiously and systematically thrown out upon this Subject, for the worst of Purposes.3

For the Honor of a Country, which notwithstanding her present unnatural Rebellion, may again be dear to Great Britain, I should be happy if a Testimony in Favor of the Treatment of the Prisoners in your Hands, equally conclusive with that from Mr Franklin, could be adduced. But the Severity exercised against the British Prisoners in general has been often a Subject of fruitless Remonstrance: and although I do you the Justice to believe that your Exertions on their Behalf, have not been wanting, the Imputation of Cruelty towards them, by other Persons in Power, is nevertheless too justly founded. This Observation is supported by notorious Facts, and therefore in making it, I neither search for an Occasion of expressing personal Politeness to you, nor of throwing unmerited Reflections on those whose Authority you uphold.4

Amongst many Instances of the Treatment to which I allude, the most recent and perhaps the most flagrant, was a Resolution that our Agents in the Country should be no longer permitted to purchase any of the Necessaries of Life for the Prisoners in your Possession. It is true that this extraordinary Resolution has been lately modified by a Permission to purchase Provisions from your Commissary (but from him only) and at such Prices as he may think proper to exact.5 In this Case, Cruelty is removed, to make Room for Imposition and public Injustice. Such a Restriction is without Precedent, and can in no Degree be justified by my Conduct towards your People. If it be as much your Wish as it is mine, to avoid future Altercations concerning the Subsistence of Prisoners on both Sides, you will agree with me that until the Mode of supplying Provisions is finally determined by the Cartel, full Liberty should be granted to the Prisoners or their Agents for purchasing Provisions under proper Restrictions. For very obvious Reasons, you cannot expect that I should grant a general Permission for the Importation of Provisions by Water, as well as by Land; particular Passes however shall be given for that Purpose, upon a previous Requisition from you, as soon and as often as our Situation will prudently admit: And as I am sincerely anxious that every other Matter relating to Prisoners should be put on the most satisfactory Footing, I desire to be understood, that I will readily grant Passports (As I formerly proposed) for Deputy Commissaries, or Officers appointed by you, to visit Monthly the Prisoners at Philadelphia, New York, and Rhode Island, who may “count their Numbers, and certify their Rolls”6—on Condition that you allow the like Privilege to Officers of my Appointment, assuring me at the same Time that your Authority will have sufficient Weight to prevent any Interruption to their Progress, and any Insult to their Persons. A late Event (of which I must here trouble you with a Detail) renders it necessary that I should demand this Assurance on your Part.

On the 16th of last Month, I sent out Clothing and Necessaries for the British and Hessian Prisoners, under the Conduct of Quarter Master Sandford and others, with the proper Passports, and a Letter to you upon the Occasion.7 After having travelled, not without some Difficulties, about sixty Miles, a Carpenter, a Conductor and a Serjeant of the Party, were unwarrantably seized and committed to Jail; the Two former under Pretence of their having uttered counterfeit Paper Money, and the latter for having some in his Possession. Upon the Interposition of General Wayne, the Serjeant was soon released, but the Carpenter and Conductor are still detained. On the 24th the Party pursued their Journey, and, in the Evening, halted nine Miles beyond Lancaster. At Midnight the Quarter Master was called out of his Bed by Colonel Smith, who communicated to him an Order, he had received, (founded, it seems upon Mr Boudinot’s Report of Grievances suffered by the Prisoners in Philadelphia) for seizing their Persons, Waggons, Clothing, Horses and Baggage. This Order was accordingly carried into Execution; and the whole Party were kept Prisoners from the 24th to the 28th when by an Order of your’s, transmitted by Colonel Fitzgerald, they were set at Liberty, and informed that they might proceed. But upon examining the State of the Waggons and Horses, it appeared that they had been much used since the Seizure of them; that the former were damaged, and the latter, from hard Labor and Neglect, so disabled as to render it a Matter of great Uncertainty whether it would be possible for them to accomplish the Journey. It was likewise discovered that the Packages and Baggage had been plundered of some of the public Stores, and of no inconsiderable Quantity of wearing Apparel and Necessaries belonging to the Party. They intended nevertheless to attempt the Prosecution of their Business as soon as the Waggons and Horses should be in a Condition to move. But in the mean Time, several Persons who seemed to be in Power, were very illiberal in their Reflections, and disputed not only the Propriety of our Officers thus traversing the Country, but even your Authority to grant them a Pass. At last, a General Conway appeared, who also declared his Opinion against permitting them to go forward, notwithstanding the explicit Orders which had been issued by Colonel Fitzgerald in your name[.] Other Officers contended for a due Obedience to your Authority, & it seemed finally to be understood that the Party should be allowed to proceed. Upon Consideration however of the Interruptions and Maltreatment they had already experienced, of the Fatigue their Horses had undergone, and of the equivocal Acquiescence shewn to your Passport, even by those who might be supposed to be under your Command, the Party very prudently determined to return to Philadelphia, rather than again expose themselves to Insult, Imprisonment and Plunder, by a vain Attempt to pursue the Object of their Journey. For your more particular Information of the Outrages committed on the abovementioned Occasion, I enclose an Extract of Mr Quarter Master Sandford’s Report.8 To call upon you for the due Punishment of the Offenders in this Instance, would I am sensible, be a fruitless Requisition. But I trust that I do not in vain demand from you Restitution of the Articles plundered, as specified in the Report, and that you will immediately send to our Barrier the Carpenter and Conductor who were imprisoned at Lancaster. I must also insist on your ordering Serjeants McMahon and Cameron who were seperated from the Party on the Road, to be delivered up, together with their Horses Arms and Accoutrements.9 These are merely Points of Right, which I will not doubt your Inclination or Power to accommodate; unless it be true that these last mentioned Serjeants, marching under the Sanction of your own Pass, were treacherously carried off from the Rear of the Party, imprisoned in Lancaster Jail, and cited to Trial for their Lives, upon the Suggestion of their being Spies. This Circumstance is attested by Serjeant Thompson, whose Deposition I enclose, as it contains a Proof of very unprovoked Barbarity exercised against a Number of Invalids, who were taken about two Months ago in the Brig Symetry near Wilmington on the Delaware.10 By this Deposition it appears that these defenceless Prisoners, lame, sick, and wounded, were beaten with Clubs: That two of them, the Deponent & Grierson, were wantonly thrown over board into the River, the latter of whom was drowned: & that William Savage an Invalid of the 17th Regiment, in a State of extreme Debility, was left all night in the long Boat, where before Morning he was so much frost bitten that the Skin and Flesh dropped from his Hands and Feet: It was unnecessary to add, that the unfortunate Man perished in consequence of such merciless Treatment. The Survivors, after having been robbed even of their Blankets, were, and I conclude still are closely confined, together with many others, amounting in the whole to one hundred and forty, Officers and private Men without Distinction, in Lancaster Jail.

By a Deposition of Thomas Wileman (which I also enclose) you will learn that he and another of my Dragoons, when they were taken Prisoners near Derby, were stript, of their Watches, Money, and Shoes, by four of your Captains, two of whose Names are Mitchelson and Davis.11 His Relation of the Murder of Eight British Prisoners, and of the wounding of eighteen more with Bayonets, though not unexceptionable, is too circumstantial to be wholly without Foundation. But why do I dwell upon particular Instances, when a general System12 is not only threatned, but openly avowed, and attempted to be justified upon the savage Principle of indiscriminate Retaliation? A Principle unsupported by the Rules of War, abhorred by every civilized Country, and solemnly condemned by the Law of Nature. It is in America only, where a Set of Men are to be found, who affecting the Character of Legislators, retaliate upon the Innocent. God forbid that I should be provoked to follow so horrid an Example. The common Soldier, taken in Arms against his King, guilty as he is of the Crime of Rebellion, shall not become the Object of a retaliating Punishment. It is only against the Authors of Cruelty that Retaliation can be made consonant with Justice.

I have entered thus largely into the various Points of our military Disputes, in Hopes of finally closing the Subjects of Complaint and Recrimination. But before I conclude this Letter I shall add, agreeably to your Expectation, a few Words concerning those in my Possession who are not reckoned amongst the Military. Several Persons, not actually bearing Arms, have been secured by my Order: Many others have been seized by the exasperated Inhabitants of different Parts of the Country, and delivered into my Hands. All these Persons were notorious Abettors of the Rebellion, Members of Committees, Collectors of arbritary Fines, and Oppressors of the peaceable Inhabitants. The Line of Treatment which might be observed respecting them, has been strongly marked by the Sufferings of many of His Majesty’s faithful Subjects in the revolted Colonies. You are not ignorant that Numbers, even of the most respectable Gentlemen in America, of that Description, have been torn from their Families, confined in Jails, and their Property confiscated; that many of those in this City, whose religious Tenets Secured them from Suspicion of entertaining Designs of Hostility, have been ignominiously imprisoned, and without even the Colour of a judicial Proceeding, banished from their tenderest Connections into the remotest Part of another Province. Nor can it be unknown to you that many have suffered Death, from Tortures inflicted by the unrelenting Populace, under the Eye of usurped yet passive Authority; that some have been dragged to Trial for their Loyalty, and in cruel Mockery of Law, condemned and executed; that others are now perishing in loathsome Dungeons; and that penal Edicts are daily issuing against all who hesitate to disavow by a solemn Oath, the Allegiance they owe, and wish to pay, to their Sovereign. Words are wanting to express the due Detestation of such Enormities: If it be asked who are the Authors of them, I must lament, for the Sake of public Justice, that I can yet answer only by a general Description, that they are Men, who trampling on the legal Constitution of their Country, have aspired to the very Summit of Despotism, and look down with Contempt on the Law of Nature and of Nations.13 I am with due Respect, Sir, your most obedient Servant

W. Howe

Copy, in John Fitzgerald’s writing, enclosed in GW to Henry Laurens, 7–8 Mar. 1778, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; two copies, P.R.O., 30/55, Carleton Papers; copy, P.R.O.: Colonial Office, Secretary of State’s Correspondence with Commander-in-Chief, North America.

1Shortly after writing this letter, Howe found it necessary to order the imprisonment of captured American officers on parole in Philadelphia. Howe’s aide Captain Muenchhausen recorded in his diary on this date that “In the evening all rebel officers, who were walking around freely on parole, as well as Captain [Alexander] Campbell, who was serving as General Erskine’s aide, were arrested and put under heavy guard. It is said that this Captain Campbell and the captured General [James] Irvine and also some other captured enemy colonels stationed here, have had secret correspondence with General Washington. Reports agree that it was the intention of these people to seize General Howe one night and cut him down during the turmoil, in case the kidnapping should fail” (Muenchhausen, At General Howe’s Side description begins Friedrich von Muenchhausen. At General Howe’s Side, 1776–1778: The Diary of General William Howe’s Aide de Camp, Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen. Translated by Ernst Kipping. Annotated by Samuel Smith. Monmouth Beach, N.J., 1974. description ends , 48). Campbell later was found innocent of the charges against him, which apparently were based on the testimony of a young woman named Mary Figis (see Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:553, 561–63).

2Daniel Clymer’s report has not been identified, but see General Orders, 12 Dec. 1777, n.4.

3The enclosed declaration of Thomas Franklin, Jr. (b. 1734), of Philadelphia, who was acting at this time as GW’s agent for the prisoners in that city, which is dated 16 Feb., reads: “I the Subscriber declare that ever since I have attended to the Prisoners I have seen nothing like cruelty exercised towards them nor heard of any insults offered to them, on the contrary I have observed care and attention has been paid to their wants & that the goal keeper has behaved to them civilly & with humanity I also have the greatest reason to believe that the allowance given them by the King has been faithfully served out both to officers & Privates Vizt to the Privates eight ounces of Pork & two thirds of a pound of Bread to officers twelve ounces of Pork & one pound of Bread each per Day. that Surgeons are appointed to attend the Sick, that fresh meat Oat Meal Barley Sugar Rum Medicines &c. are administered to them—that the sick officers have their Paroles & those in confinement are allowed the priviledge of walking out every Day for an hour or two in their turns for the advantage of exercise & air—and I am informed that it is on account of the Public safety & the necessity of Guarding prisoners in a garrisoned Town which prevents greater indulgence being granted to them. . . . Women Nurses are appointed by General Howe to tend the sick I have by permission furnished Blankets & other Cloathing that the Prisoners are comfortable on that acct” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

4In his letter to Howe of 30 Jan., GW had remarked: “No expressions of personal politeness to me can be acceptable, accompanied by reflections on the Representatives of a free people, under whose authority I have the honor to act.”

6Among the congressional resolutions that GW sent Howe on 30 Jan. was one of 21 Jan. directing that “in return for the permission given by the resolution of Congress of the 21 May, 1776, for a commissioned officer from the British army to visit monthly the prisoners in the power of these states, ‘in order to count their numbers and certify their rolls,’ General Washington be directed to demand peremptorily of General Howe, a like permission, or to agree upon any other equal mode, for ascertaining the situation of the American prisoners, which shall be deemed most expedient” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 10:79–80).

7The letter has not been identified.

8For quartermaster Thomas Sandford’s report and a description of the dispute over the British convoy, see William Stephens Smith to GW, 25 Jan., nn.1–2.

9Thomas Sandford claimed that on 30 Jan. “Serjeant [Matthew] McMahon of the 16th Dragoons & Serjeant [Donald] Cameron of the 42d Regiment seperated by some Means or other from the Party, and have not been since heard off” (DLC:GW). For Sandford’s report, see William Stephens Smith to GW, 25 Jan., nn.1–2; see also Howe to GW, 21 Mar., and GW to Howe, 22 March.

10Sgt. George Thompson of the British 63d Regiment of Foot deposed on 16 Feb. that “about the 17th day of December last Capt. Carmichael of the 10th Regiment this deponent, and several Soldiers of different Regiments, as well as A great Number of Invalids, sailed from New York on Board the Brig Symmetry Monkman Commander, that on the 27th in the Deleware near Wilmington the Brig run aground, That the Rebels discovered this, brought their Cannon to the Bank of the River, fired upon, and took the Vessel and made all the people on Board Prisoners, violently forcing the prisoners from the Deck of the Vessel into the long Boat, beating the lame, the Sick and Wounded with Clubs, that they threw this Deponent and Adam Grierson, also of the 63d, overboard into the River, by which Grierson was drowned—they left Wm Savage of the 17th being unable to help himself by Reason of Sickness in the Long Boat all night by which he was so much Frost Bitten that the Skin and flesh dropped of[f] his hands and feet and is since dead from this severe treatment several others of the Prisoners also were frost-bitten, being Obliged to wade through the Water up to their Waists. That they plundered the prisoners of their Hatts and Blankets, as well as all the private property they had. About A Week after this Deponent and the other Soldiers were taken, the Rebels searched the Women, and took from them all their Tea and Sugar, which they had Concealed in their Pockets—they kept the prisoners without A pot or Camp Kettle to dress their Provisions for fourteen days, and afterwards upon their being Conveyed to Lancaster and Closely confined in Goal with the prisoners before there, making in the whole 139 in Number, four Small Camp Kettles only were distributed among them, that Capt. Carmichael & A Gentleman of the Navy were Confined in the same appartments with the private Prisoners, and subject in every respect to the same treatment” (two copies, P.R.O., 30/55, Carleton Papers). On 6 Mar., GW forwarded Thompson’s deposition to Brig. Gen. William Smallwood for verification or denial. Smallwood replied on 9–10 Mar. that Thompson’s testimony was, in most respects, “without the least foundation.” For more on the capture of the brig Symmetry, see William Smallwood to GW, 30 Dec. 1777, n.3.

11Thomas Wileman of the British 17th Dragoons deposed on 18 Feb. “that on or about the 25th day of December last he was taken prisoner by the Rebels near Darby and Stript of his Cloaths, Watch, money, and Shoes and another Dragoon of the same Regiment taken at the same time was treated in the same manner by four Captains two of whose names this deponent remembers to be Mitchelson and Davis of the Jersey Troops, that in that naked Condition he was marched to Lord Sterlings Quarters, to whom after having been Examined by him, he, this Deponent made Complaint of the Usage he had received, but was answered by him ‘That was a maxim taken from the British Troops’ who treat the Continental Soldiers in that manner when prisoners with them, that Lord Sterling being displeased with his reply to that Charge ordered him Immediately to the Provost, that Eight days after he was sent to General Washingtons Quarters at the Valley Forge, before whom he was again examined, that while in Confinement at that place this Deponent and Several other British Prisoners were four days without any Provissions, and complaining to the Captain of the Guard of such treatment, he charged it to the Neglect of the Provost Martial and on the fifth day they received provisions, that they were sent from thence to Lancaster where they were grosly insulted by the Inhabitants; that when in Goal the Bread served out to them was so very bad that It occasioned A continual Drought, and such an Inflamation in the mouth that the Skin came partly off. That during this deponents stay in the said Goal he saw A Rebel Paper printed at York dated the 2d or 3d Instant which gave an Account of A Chimney’s taking fire by reason of its being foul in the Provost at Frederick Town but A Suspicion arising, that it had been done by the British prisoners there, the Rebel Soldiers with Bayonets killed eight and wounded Eighteen of them; That this matter was Confirmed to this Deponent by A prisoner who had been taken by the Rebels and transmitted from thence to Lancaster Goal” (two copies, P.R.O., 30/55: Carleton Papers). “Mitchelson” may have been Alexander Mitchell, who was appointed a first lieutenant in the 4th New Jersey Regiment in November 1776, rose to the rank of captain in the same regiment in November 1777, and was later transferred to the 1st New Jersey Regiment. Davis has not been identified.

12The copies of this letter in P.R.O. add the words “of Cruelty” at this place in the text.

13GW forwarded this letter and its enclosures to the Continental Congress camp committee on 1 Mar. and to Henry Laurens on 7–8 Mar., and he sent Sgt. George Thompson’s deposition to Brig. Gen. William Smallwood on 6 March (see note 10). GW acknowledged receipt to Howe on 9 Mar., promising that “due notice” would be taken of the contents, but it does not appear that GW ever made a formal response to Howe’s charges.

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